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William Morris Society in the United States
Newsletter July 1989



THE WIDOW'S HOUSE BY THE GREAT RIVER'

Later this year, the American branch of the William Morris Society will publish an edition of Morris's The Widow's House by the Great River. Details of price and date of issue will be included in the October newsletter.

Edited by Helen Timo, this is one of several unfinished prose romances of the 1890s which are to be found in the May Morris Bequest at the British Library. This tale is possibly an early version of The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897). As Ms Timo writes: 'The story's appeal consists, not only in its foreshadowing of the ideas later dealt with in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, but also in its lively characterization and sensitive handling of the relations between the heroine and her various suitors. Morris seems particularly interested in the problem of how to portray a female protagonist. In his earlier work, female characters sometime seem to play a rather decorative, passive role. In The Widow's House, however, Morris grows dissatisfied with his heroine's lack of initiative and abandons her in Chapter XI, after giving us tantalizing glimpses of a future in which she may share the fate of a fair lady in a spaeman's tale, who 'was wedded to a good knight' but 'taken in the snare of love with a monk, a priest to wit . . .'.

Helen Timo lives and teaches at Cambridge. She has been working on Morris since 1977. Her doctoral thesis was a study of the popular use of religious imagery In Morris's prose romances and unfinished novel. Her edition of The Widow's House by the Great River was prepared during her term as Schoolteacher Fellow at St. Hugh's College, Oxford in Summer 1980. She hopes to prepare more of Morris's other unfinished romances for publication in the near future.

MORRIS SESSION AT THE MLA

'Morris and Women' is the topic for the Society's session at this year's MLA Annual Convention, to be held in December in Washington, DC. The speakers will be follows: Norman Kelvin, on women in Morris's later letters and prose romances; Julia Atkins, on 'The Ionides Family'; Nina Auerbach, 'Must Guenevere Grovel" From the dramatic monologue to pictorial theatre'; and Holly Dworkin, 'A Design of One's Own: William Morris and Women.' Florence Boos writes that there seems to considerable interest in the topic. Two other offered papers and that she, too, has written an article on the subject.

While plans are still uncertain, the Society hopes this year to sponsor an event outside the noise and tumult of the MLA convention itself. This may take the form of a lunch at the National Gallery of Art, followed by an opportunity to see the Gallery's growing collection of Pre-Raphaelite drawings. Members who are not attending the MLA meeting will be especially welcomed.


THE DOHENY MORRIS SALE

We have all heard the reports that the art market is booming. High--should one say heretofore unimaginable--prices are expected and received for paintings by Picasso and Van Gogh, for illuminated MSS, for Walt Disney cartoons. Those of us whose interest in Morris and his friends includes collecting their work have always felt pleased that ours was an out-of-the-way area, undiscovered (or at least neglected) by big-time collectors. A few exceptional Pre-Raphaelite pictures have brought large sums--$3 million for Rossetti's Proserpine, probably the last major Rossetti left outside a museum, but the market has been relatively calm, some lots at auction actually going unsold. In the course of a single morning all this has changed. On Friday, 19 May 1989, Christie's sold the sixth and final part of the Doheny collection devoted to 'William Morris and his Circle', A papal countess and the wife of a California oil millionaire, Doheny formed her library during the years 1930 to 1950. Morris was but one of her interests, which included also miniature books, Americana, Mark Twain, Kate Greenaway, incunabula, and many 'high-spots' of English and American literature.

Christie's did a lot of publicity for the sale, much of it featuring the obvious 'star' item, Morris's spectacularly beautiful illuminated MS of the Aeneid. The catalogue, hard-bound in bright Socialist red!, contained an 8-page description (not counting two fold-out color plates) of this item alone, giving an estimate of $250,000-300,000. Weeks before the sale there was talk of the Aeneid bringing perhaps half a million dollars, if the right buyer could be found. But the fate of the lesser items--a complete (or nearly so) run of Kelmscott Press titles, numerous Morris presentation copies, books in bindings by Cobden-Sanderson or the Doves bindery, a few decorative objects--was a bit uncertain. As it turned out no one needed to worry, especially the auctioneer or the sale's beneficiary, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The auction was attended by several Society members, among them Carole Silver, Mark Samuels Lasner, and our former American secretary, Joseph R. Dunlap. The well-known dealers were there in force, though as it turned out, most of us, booktrade and Morrisians alike, were there for the show not the bidding. What was apparent, even by the third lot, was that this was an extraordinary affair, soon to be dominated by three buyers.

Lot 2234 (the sale began with 2232) was a copy, nicely bound, of The Flower Book of Edward Burne-Jones. This volume, issued posthumously in 1903, reproduces the artist's symbolic watercolors (now in the British Library) inspired by the names and meanings of flowers. It is not a particularly scarce item, and the stated limitation to 300 copies is not necessarily to be believed. The catalogue estimate of $1,000 to $1500 was realistic if a little low. After a minute of spirited bidding it was purchased by the London bookseller Simon Finch, for $8500. Mr. Finch was clearly a man to watch; he seemed particularly interested in material connected to Burne-Jones. Following The Flower Book came Morris's copy of Marx's Le Capital, in a leather binding by Cobden-Sanderson. Some might find it odd for this title to be gorgeously bound; certainly the $50,000 paid for it must count as ironic. (Somehow it is not Marx, but Veblen that comes to mind here.) This price was--believe it or not--below the estimate. However, the buyer was another London dealer, Maggs Brothers, who are believed to represent a tenacious yet generous private collector who has filled his (very appropriate) Chelsea house with Pre-Raphaelite treasures. Had there been more competition they would certainly be prepared to go higher. As the sale progressed Maggs purchased virtually everything bound by Cobden-Sanderson or his Doves bindery, paying $7000 for Ruskin's Pre-Raphaelitism and $16000 for the Kelmscott edition of Shakespeare's Poems inscribed by Cobden-Sanderson to his wife.

Various relatively minor books went to various bidders and it was not until lot 2260, the first of a series of non-Kelmscott presentation copies from Morris, that a third strong force made himself known. For this book, The Earthly Paradise inscribed (well, only the first volume, volumes two and three un-inscribed) to John Ruskin, went for $6000 to a man with bidding paddle number 699. As book after book followed no. 699 either snapped them up or bid them up, the momentum and prices of his purchases becoming so remarkable that whispering arose regarding his identity. As a rule booksellers at an auction do no care to have their turf intruded upon, and the unknown bidder was as upsetting as he was mysterious. A number of others, Ximenes (purchasing some of Morris's original drawings), William Salloch (buying Kelmscott versions of medieval literature) and the Lathrop Harper firm (the MS of News from Nowhere for $75000, destined apparently for the Morgan Library), were able to withstand Mr. 699 but it was difficult. The least expensive book inscribed by Morris went for $950, everything seemed to sell for at least the high estimate or, often, double it. In the Kelmscott section Maggs was able to pick off the corrected proofs for The Tale of King Cousians and Over Sea ($12,000) and the MS (mostly in Sydney Cockerell's hand) of Morris's 'Note on his Aims . . . in founding the Kelmscott Press' ($13,000); but the Chaucer on vellum went elsewhere for $300,000. Simon Finch, again attending to Burne-Jones, had success with the Kelmscott edition of Rossetti's Hand and Soul, inscribed 'To Edward Burne-Jones from William Morris December 15th 1895'; this little 16mo--which I coveted-- brought $7500, ten times Christie's estimate.

Even more staggering was the $26,000 paid for a copy of Doheny's own privately printed 1934 A Pre-Raphaelite Aeneid of Virgil. This book about the Morris MS in her library is not, as one might suppose, any sort of facsimile. In fact it is a rather sedate piece of work by the California printer Ward Ritchie and has been known to be a slow seller on bookdealers' shelves. Certainly the book offered was made more interesting by the insertion of 47 letters and cards from people to whom Doheny had sent copies, but still $26,000 is, even by the standards set by other things in this sale, exceptional. Then there was the little section devoted to 'Arts and Crafts', four items of which Mr. 699 purchased two, a pair of painted wood panels described as not by but after Burne-Jones--$7000, and an unattributed photograph of Morris which brought £1900. The stage was set for the last two lots, Morris's calligraphic MS of The Story of Frithiof the Bold and the much-ballyhoed Aeneid.

For Frithiof Christie's had a pre-sale opinion of £30,000-40,000, not perhaps a modest sum . While not in the same class as the Aeneid this was a wonderful MS of a translation made by Morris and Eirikr Magnusson. Any Morrisian would be happy to take it home--even a facsimile would be nice. Frithiof went to Maggs for $120,000, at that moment probably the record for a single nineteenth century MS of any kind. Records are made to be broken (so the art world tells us) and shattered this one was by the Aeneid. There was silence as the bidding went on, quickly reaching $500,000, then with longer pauses, moving up notch by notch until 'one million two hundred thousand dollars' was called out twice by the auctioneer, 'all done.'

With this last purchase Mr. 699 had spent possibly $1.5M or more on Morris, building a sizable collection in an hour and a half. Who was he? It is thought that he was an associate of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer who has (I am told) four London shows running simultaneously. The same buyer is reputed to have added to his collection two Burne-Jones paintings (at £300,000 each) recently sold at Sotheby's. What's next?

And what would Morris himself make of all this? He would be pleased that his handiwork was so highly thought of. As a collector himself--the Kelmscott House library held some of the finest English illuminated MS available a century ago--he would have a certain empathy for the bidders and purchasers. Would the prices have bothered him? Possibly, but remember that Morris so coveted the Aldenham Psalter that he paid £1000 when it had cost its previous owner only £75/36/-.

 

OTHER NEWS

Florence Boos reports that the copy-edited manuscript of Socialism and the Literary Artistry of William Morris, a volume of essays sponsored by the American branch of the Society, has gone to the publisher, the University of Missouri Press. Publication is expected sometime next year. Ms. Boos also reports that she is negotiating with another publisher over her projected edition of Morris's writings.

Jashua Heller, a Washington, DC bookseller who specializes in fine illustrated and private press books--including the work of Morris and his followers such as Ashbee, Cobden-Sanderson, Eric Gill, and others--has moved. His new address and telephone number are: Joshua Heller Rare Books, Box 39114, Washington, DC, 20016. [202] 966-9411.

A recent issue (no. 10, 198) of the French journal, Cahiers Charles V, included a pair of articles relating to Morris by Lilianne Abensour. The first, 'Ceci est un Livre', dealt with Morris, his utopian ideas, and the Kelmscott Press. The second was Abensour's translation (almost certainly the first into French) or Morris's lecture 'The Ideal Book'.

 

LAST UPDATE 4 JAN 2001 · PLEASE REPORT BROKEN LINKS TO WEBMASTER@MORRISSOCIETY.ORG

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